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10 Actors Under 40 Who are Following in the Footsteps of Harry Belafonte

from our Optimisticles blog series

By Wes Kilgore, Well Beings

Harry Belafonte, who passed away last month at age 96, was a legendary actor and singer who was probably best known for his ubiquitous hit, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” But he was also a vocal advocate for social justice for over 60 years. His work in civil rights, HIV/AIDS awareness, and famine relief has helped to shape the course of history. After moving from Jamaica to the United States when he was 15 years old, Belafonte quickly became involved in the civil rights movement. He was a close friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., and he helped to organize many of the major marches and protests of the era.

Belafonte was also a vocal advocate for a variety of other human rights causes including apartheid in South Africa, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the war in Iraq. He also worked to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and other displaced people. His work had a profound impact on the world, making a real difference in the lives of millions of people, and he basically set the template for how Hollywood entertainers can use their stature to spark change. While the tireless activism of well-established stars like George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn and others has been well-documented, there is a younger crop of human rights champions who are making their mark, and appear well-positioned to carry the mantle of Belafonte’s legacy of advocacy. Here are 10 actors under 40 who are fighting at the front lines for human rights.

Yara Shahidi (Black-ish, Grown-ish)

Actress and fashion icon Yara Shahidi has has spoken out on a number of issues for years, including education, civil rights, and social justice. Shahidi, who was one of Time’s 30 Most Influential Teens of 2016, is a vocal advocate for young people and has worked to raise awareness of the issue of educational inequity. She has been involved in advocating for issues such as immigration reform and gun control, and in 2018 she founded the Eighteen x ’18 campaign to encourage young people to vote. That year, youth voter turnout surged by 188 percent in early voting compared with 2014, an increase attributed in part to the efforts of the Eighteen x ’18 campaign and other youth-led initiatives.

Emma Watson (Harry Potter, The Perks of Being a Wallflower)

It would be great if she could wave a magic wand, say “Egalsumus equitas genderis!” ( or something like that), and instantly end discrimination against and oppression of women. Instead, actress, activist and feminist Emma Watson, aka Hermione Granger, devotes a lot of her time and energy to passionately promoting gender equality and women’s rights. In 2014, she was appointed as a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and has been an outspoken advocate in the Time’s Up campaign. In 2015, Watson was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine and launched the HeForShe campaign, which encourages men to advocate for gender equality.

We need to live in a culture that values and respects and looks up to and idolizes women as much as men.”

Emma Watson, 2017 – EW magazine

John Boyega (Star Wars sequel trilogy, Attack the Block)

We hope that one day, John Boyega’s dream of an animated spin-off about R2-D2 (in which he plays BB-8’s older cousin BB-Z) comes to fruition. In the meantime, the British actor who is best known as Finn in the “Star Wars” saga, remains a vocal advocate for Black Lives Matter and has spoken out against police brutality. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Boyega gave an impassioned speech at a Black Lives Matter protest in Hyde Park, London on June 3, 2020. In his speech, Boyega spoke about his own experiences with racism and police brutality and the need for change.

“We don’t know what George Floyd could have achieved. We don’t know what Sandra Bland could have achieved, but today we’re going to make sure that that won’t be an alien thought to our young ones.”

John Boyega in his 2020 Hyde Park speech

Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games, The Hate U Give)

Amandla Stenberg is an actress, musician and activist who rose to fame with her role as Rue, the youngest tribute in “The Hunger Games.” Twice included in Time‘s list of Most Influential Teens (2015 and 2016), Stenberg is a vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, environmentalism and racial justice. In 2018, she co-founded the organization “Niijii Films” to amplify Indigenous voices in media.

“What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?”

Amandla Stenberg

Saoirse Ronan (Ladybird, Hanna)

Irish actress Saoirse Ronan is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and has spoken out on a number of social issues, including the #MeToo movement, gender equality, and the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. In 2018, Ronan joined the Time’s Up movement and she joined #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and a host of activists and public figures in signing an open letter calling on world leaders to take action against a variety of urgent issues, from the climate crisis to global poverty. 

Keke Palmer (Akeelah and the Bee, Nope)

When she’s not busy totally crushing it on the internet, meme-friendly Keke Palmer uses her platform as an actress, singer, dancer and television personality to speak out on a number of social issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement, body positivity, LGBTQ+ rights and mental health awareness. Named to Time magazine’s list of Most Influential People in the World in 2019, Palmer has spoken openly about her own struggles with anxiety and depression. In 2019, she launched a campaign called “I Am Not Okay,” which encourages people to talk about their mental health struggles..

Kendrick Sampson (Insecure, How to Get Away with Murder)

Kendrick Sampson is an actor, activist and occasional thirst trapper who has been involved in numerous social justice causes, including police reform, criminal justice reform, and voting rights. He is the co-founder of BLD PWR, an organization that aims to empower Black communities and encourage leaders in Hollywood to start using their platforms for social change.

“I think that whatever privilege we have on this earth — whether it be the color of our skin or just male or straight or whatever — we’re supposed to use that to help liberate those who don’t have that privilege… We’re either complicit in oppression or we’re not.”

Kendrick Sampson, 2019 in Teen Vogue

Rowan Blanchard (Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, Girl Meets World)

Along with her BFF, Yara Shahidi, Rowan Blanchard is one of the most vocal young actresses/activists in Hollywood. She is also an outspoken feminist and LGBTQ+ rights advocate, and has used her platform to promote progressive causes like gun control and climate change awareness. Blanchard has also worked with organizations such as UNICEF and the ACLU to support their efforts to improve the lives of people around the world.

“I think the most powerful thing a woman can have is confidence.”

Rowan Blanchard

Shailene Woodley (The Divergent Series, Big Little Lies)

Shailene Woodley is giving Daryl Hannah stiff competition for the title of Queen of Environmental activists. The actress has been involved in various causes related to climate change and environmentalism, a supporter of Indigenous rights and has been involved in the Standing Rock protests. Chief among Woodley’s activist bona fides are her roles as a Greenpeace Oceans Ambassador, a member of the Conservation International’s Leadership Council and GoodLeap’s Advisory Council, and a board member of the political action committee, Our Revolution. She is also a co-founder of the nonprofit organization All it Takes.

“Worry is the product of a future that we cannot guarantee and guilt is the product of a past we cannot change.” 

Shailene Woodley

Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery)

Singer, songwriter and actress Janelle Monáe is vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and racial justice. In 2015, she released “Hell You Talmbout,” a powerful protest song against police brutality featuring a spoken word track by Monáe in which she recited the names of black people who had been killed by police. In the years since, Monáe has continued to speak out against injustice, performing at a number of benefit concerts and rallies.

“You are only as beautiful as the many beautiful things you do for others without expectation.”

Janelle Monáe

About the Author

ee Dunning, author & psychotherapist providing crisis intervention

Wes Kilgore is a writer, musician and bon vivant based in the Washington, DC area, and the proud parent of two disturbingly well-adjusted young women and two borderline sociopathic Corgis.

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